The key marker of a healthy economy in today’s world is when GDP growth is accompanied by the improvement of people’s well-being, especially in relation to the environment we live in. In this light, the sharp demographic growth and construction being experienced in Malta to suit the growing economy needs to be propped up by sustainable measures to ensure that our quality of life is protected.
As an architect and structural engineer, and a parent, I follow the continuous onslaught on trees to accommodate wider roads for more polluting cars with a heavy heart. Rather than solving the long-term traffic problem, this cull aggravates the situation as it encourages ever more cars on our roads while degrading the environment for our children.
It is high time that the government addresses the transport problem seriously and invests strategically in alternative forms of public transport that reduce the number of private cars on our roads.
Can anyone imagine London without the underground metro system or without the numerous bridges crossing the Thames that provide vital social and economic links across the city? London would stall and business investment would ebb away in a short span of time without such public transport assets.
In fact, rather than widening roads to satisfy London’s rapid population growth (up to nearly nine million in 2018 from eight million in 2008), the authorities have over the past decades embarked on strategic public transport projects to absorb this urban growth. For example, to enhance bus service efficiency, Oxford Street in central London (the busiest retail street in Europe) is designated for bus lanes only in peak hours and private vehicles are banned, with hefty fines imposed if anyone dares to break the rules.
The more difficult it is to use the car, the more people tend to use public transport, with more revenue to government to invest in enhanced public transport projects. It is a straightforward equation and a win-win approach to the government and the public they are serving.
A single 25km-long metro line from Mellieħa to Marsascala… could capture half the Maltese population
In Malta, if one estimates that 50,000 people are stuck in traffic for nearly 15 minutes each way every day, this equates to nearly €70 million wasted nationally every year on loss of productivity. This figure is much higher when one considers the hefty cost to the Maltese health system due to chronic health problems from inhaling polluting particles caused by traffic.
It is evident that any long-term sustainable transport solution for a densely populated island-state like Malta needs to focus on public transport, with a shift away from the private use of the car.
So how can this be achieved?
Firstly, strategic public transport links between localities need to be implemented. These could include enhanced ferry services across waterways and strategic pedestrian/cycle bridges across harbour areas.
A pedestrian/cycle bridge from Sliema to lower Valletta for example would cost approximately €10 million to build and would provide a key pedestrian connection between the two towns. It will also act as a catalyst to business both to Sliema’s Tigné zone and also to the lower part of Valletta.
A similar pedestrian link project could also be implemented across the Grand Harbour, for example from Senglea to Valletta (say from Ġnien il-Gardjola to Herbert Ganado Gardens), with the central part of the bridge openable to allow cruise liners to pass unhindered at predetermined times.
Such link projects have been done successfully overseas with considerable long-term benefits to local populations and business. These projects could also be fantastic sustainable projects on the back of Valletta V18.
Secondly, nationwide public transport modes need to be introduced urgently. The most obvious solution is an underground metro system that will reduce drastically the need of private vehicles on our roads. A single 25km-long metro line from Mellieħa to Marsascala with a loop at the end to the airport (via St Paul’s Bay, Sliema and Valletta) could capture half the Maltese population.
Such a metro line could then be extended in future phases between St Paul’s Bay and the airport (via Mosta and Qormi) and even between Mellieħa and Gozo – thus negating the need of a costly vehicular tunnel/bridge to Gozo while still providing the vital link for people between the two islands. It would take merely 25 minutes on the tube from Victoria to Valletta.
The geology under most of Malta makes tunnelling for an underground metro line less complex, and there are innovative methods of using the waste from such projects in environmental friendly measures. In the new Crossrail underground line in London, for example, 4.5 million tons of earth from the construction of the new rail tunnels under London have been used to form the nature reserve at Wallasea Island in the River Thames Estuary, transforming it into a thriving wetland, twice the size of the City of London and teeming with bird and marine life.
The expertise to achieve the above transport modes is available to Malta. It takes strong leadership with a long-term vision to implement them.
Dr Konrad Xuereb is a director at KonceptX, an architectural and structural engineering firm with offices in Malta and London.